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Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Execution of Father Christmas

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Execution of Father Christmas 31

On the afternoon of December 24, 1951, Santa Claus was hanged at the gate of Dijon Cathedral and publicly burned in the churchyard. The spectacular execution took place in the presence of several hundreds of patronage children. It had been agreed with the clergy who had condemned Santa Claus as a usurper and heretic. He had been accused of paganizing the feast of Christmas and to have settled in it like a cuckoo occupying an ever larger place. Above all, he is reproached for having entered all the public schools from which the crib is scrupulously banned. On Sunday, at three in the afternoon, the unfortunate white-bearded good man paid as many innocent people for a fault that those who applauded his execution had been guilty. The fire ignited his beard and he vanished into smoke. At the end of the execution a communiqué was issued, of which we report the essential passages: “Representing all the Christian families of the parish wishing to fight against lies, 250 children, grouped in front of the main door of the Dijon cathedral, burned Santa Claus. It was not an attraction, but a symbolic gesture. Santa Claus was sacrificed for a holocaust. To tell the truth, lying cannot awaken religious sentiment in the child and is in no case an educational method. Let others write and say what they want and make Santa Claus the a Christmas figurative counterweight. For us Christians, the feast of Christmas must remain the anniversary that celebrates the birth of the Savior”.

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The execution of Santa Claus in the churchyard has been assessed differently by the population and has provoked heated comments from Catholics as well. On the other hand, this untimely event risks having unforeseen consequences from its organizers (…) The case divides the city into two sides. Dijon awaits the resurrection of the murdered Santa Claus in the churchyard. He will resurrect tonight at 18:00 in the Town Hall. In fact, in an official press release he summoned, as every year, the children of Dijon to the place de la Liberation announcing that he would speak to them from the roofs of the Town Hall where he will circulate in the spotlight. Canon Kir, deputy-mayor of Dijon, would have refrained from taking a position in this delicate affair ››.

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The article of 24 December 1951 in the French newspaper “France-Soir” opens the short essay in which Claude Levi-Strauss, starting from the specific case report described in it, takes the opportunity to analyze the hidden meaning of the celebration of Christmas and the value that the figure of it assumes in it Santa Claus, on the basis of the observation that ‹‹ it does not happen every day for the ethnologist to observe, in the society in which he lives, the sudden development of a ritual, and even a cult ››. The anthropologist first of all notes that starting from the second post-war period all over the world – and in particular in France – the celebration of Christmas was strongly influenced by traditions imported from the United States, a phenomenon increased by the political and economic rise of this power and from the diffusion of American films and novels; ‹‹ but all this would be insufficient to clarify the phenomenon. Some customs imported from the United States also impose on sections of the population who are not aware of their origin; workers’ environments, where the communist influence should, if anything, discredit everything that bears the made in U.S.A. brand, willingly adopt them like the others ››.

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Although the present form of the festival is recent – even the first mention of the Christmas tree dates back only to some German texts of the seventeenth century -, the presence of more archaic features, which seem to suggest that it is an ancient celebration whose importance has never been completely forgotten ››: already in medieval times the use of Christmas stumps is attested ‹‹ made of a trunk so large as to burn all night ›› – Lévi-Strauss also mentions the tree of the tales of the Round Table, entirely covered with lights – and candles; therefore the paradigm common to ancient and modern Christmas celebrations seems to be the adoption of symbols of light. However, the French anthropologist is skeptical of “continuistic” theories, which would claim to see true vestiges and ancient reminiscences in today’s Christmas party and recognizes that in its present form the Christmas tree is certainly a recent invention; nevertheless, this symbol certainly relies on more archaic elements inherent in European culture:

‹‹ If in prehistoric times there had never been that cult of trees that was then perpetuated in various folkloric customs, modern Europe would not have “invented” the Christmas tree. >>

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In addition to the lucifer tree symbol, the other key element of the current Christmas party is the figure of “King with a white beard”: for Lévi-Strauss Santa Claus is a real ruler dressed in scarlet, personification of the benevolence and protection exercised by the world of adults towards that of children. Like the Christmas tree, this figure is also a modern invention ‹‹ and even more recent is the belief (which obliges Denmark to keep a special post office to answer the correspondence of all the children of the world) which makes it reside in Greenland, Danish possession, and who wants to travel on a reindeer sleigh. It is also claimed that this aspect of the legend developed mainly during the last war, due to the permanence of American forces in Iceland and Greenland. but yet the reindeer are not random, since English Renaissance documents mention trophies of reindeer exhibited during Christmas dances, and this before every belief of Santa Claus and, even more, at the birth of his legend. Very ancient elements are therefore mixed and remixed, with the subsequent addition of others; unpublished formulas that perpetuate, transform or revive ancient customs>>. The attention of Lévi-Strauss focuses precisely on the intrinsic role of Santa Claus and on the reason that led the adults to the creation of this figure.

He believes that the king dressed in purple should be classified – more than in that of mythical and legendary beings – in the category of divinities and this becomes evident if one observes more carefully the real veneration manifested towards him by that specific group of to which he is patron, or the world of children: just like the faithful, they send him requests and prayers, offer him “sacrifices” in the form of food (think of the milk and biscuits left by the fireplace), consecrate promises and oaths, primarily “Being good” during the year ‹‹ e the only difference between Santa Claus and a true divinity is that adults do not believe in him, although they encourage their children to believe in it and feed this belief through a large number of mystifications>>.

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Santa Claus is ultimately for Lévi-Strauss a figure implicitly connected to the sphere of initiation rites (trivially think that the discovery of Santa’s nonexistence is considered a sort of watershed between childhood and adolescence for a child), as it protects a specific human group, children, known to be understood already in “primitive” and ancient societies as “other” individuals, not belonging to the social and civil organization of adults, classified through a series of negations: non-men, non-citizens and – according to the inverse symmetry scheme – assimilated to women and the deceased. This explains why a not infrequently foundational element of the rites of passage was the initiatory transvestism of young men not yet men, seen as real women, or in any case female beings, participate more in the female than in the virile world; this condition could also be manifested externally through the recruitment of women’s clothes, but in “executed Santa Claus” the author focuses specifically on the other singular symmetry, that between children and the deceased, also underlying the Halloween party.

To understand this analogy, the combination of the Christmas tradition focused on Santa Claus with other non-European customs widespread among Indian populations of Southwest America is considered useful: Lévi-Strauss recalls the Katchina of Pueblo, considering the spirits of the dead who would periodically visit the living to bring gifts or punish them. Maybe like Santa Claus, i Katchina could represent the link between the world of adults and that of children, a means by which the class of adults would try to regulate and control the behavior of beings usually extraneous to the usual social and civil norms: through the promise of a prize – a gift – received on a festive and ritual occasion codified by adults, the children undertake to appease the most “insubordinate” and irrational traits of their being and to submit to the authority of the elderly:

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‹‹ There is no doubt that initiation rites and myths have a practical function in human societies: they help adults to keep their descendants in order and obedience. During the year, we invoke the visit of Santa Claus to remind our children that his generosity will be proportional to their goodness; the periodic nature of the distribution of gifts serves profitably to regulate childish requests, to reduce to a short period the moment in which they are truly entitled to ask for gifts. >>

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Execution of Father Christmas 37
Hopi dancers dressed as Katchina

But it exists an important detail that unites children to the deceased and in some respects Santa Claus at Halloween: in the founding myth of the tradition of the Katchina, the latter are the souls of dead children, drowned in a river during an ancient migration that will bring the natives to their territories. At first they would have been totally evil, usual spirits kidnap children live from their homes; for this reason, alarmed, the adults would have created a compromise with them: in exchange for the protection of their offspring the natives would periodically stage dances with masks represented the Katchina. In short, i Katchina they are the dead ‹‹ ​​and the dead are the children ››: the contrast that i Katchina and Santa Claus implicitly create is not only between children and adults, but ‹‹ a deeper contrast between the dead and the living ››:

‹‹ “Non-initiation” is not exclusively a state of deprivation, defined by ignorance, illusion or other negative connotations. The relationship between initiates and uninitiates has a positive content. It is a complementary relationship between two groups: one represents the dead and the other the living. >>

Lévi-Strauss decides to use the comparison with non-European traditions to demonstrate that the core behind today’s Christmas party is not simply consisting of ‹‹ historical vestiges ›› – this is impossible given ‹‹ the absence of any possible historical relationship conceivable between their institutions and ours (if some late Spanish influences are excluded, in the 17th century) ›› – but from ‹ ‹Forms of thought and conduct that depend on more general conditions of social life ››.

Proof of the symmetry of the dead children also comes from the people of the Inuit (Eskimos), where the souls of the dead were believed to reincarnate precisely in children and this regardless of biological sex: the case of a girl named Iqallijuq is known, considered reincarnation of the soul of her maternal grandfather and for this reason she grew up from birth to adolescence as a boy. The relationship between the world of the dead and the child breaks not by chance when the latter begins to grow and fit into the orderly and regulated society of adults, moving away from the state of otherness that distinguishes him: once he became a teenager Iqallijuq was forced to abandon the soul-name of the grandfather and to conform to his biological sex and ‹‹ while he had to unwillingly wear his first female clothes, his mother was crying to see the reincarnation of her father subjected to menstruation>>.

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Once again it is clear that ‹‹ the dead are children ›› and on the other hand this correspondence is well known also in European culture. On the feast of Halloween and in the folkloric practices related to it (think of the children who during the festival of Saint martin ‹‹ they went from house to house carrying empty pumpkins with a burning candle inside. They kept them stuck on long sticks, made them look out the windows and people laughed pretending to be afraid and offered sweets and chestnuts to keep them away>>) it is no small matter that children play a central role and go door to door. In the period in which the temporary contact between the world of the living and the dead is celebrated, the latter are personified by the human group closest to the status of the dead, or children: how the dead are also not part of the social and civic order structured by adults, but while the children are uninitiated, destined to enter that world through rites of passage, the deceased have already experienced that passage and covered the role assigned to them by society and then said goodbye.

In this respect there seems to be a strong similarity between Christmas and Halloween, both holidays founded on the need to create a positive dialectic between adults and children, between the living and the dead: ‹‹ in the Middle Ages children did not wait patiently waiting for their toys to descend from the fireplace. Generally disguised and grouped in bands, which the ancient French designates for this reason guisarts, go from house to house, singing and offering their wishes, receiving fruit and sweets in exchange. Significantly, they evoke death to assert their belief. Thus in Scotland in the eighteenth century they sing these verses: “Rise up, good wife, and be no ’swier (lazy) / To deal your bread as long’s you’re here; / The time will come when you’ll be dead, / And neither want nor beal nor bread>>.

It is significant that the analogy between children and the deceased is also found in the story that elevates St. Nicholas as protector of the first: the saint he would resurrect three killed childrentorn apart by a host and his wife. Despite the reference to the patron saint of Bari, the “king with the white beard” could have a more obscure and malignant origin: Saturn/ Kronos, devourer of their children. The same celebration of Christmas was set for December 24-25 to Christianize the pagan festival of the Saturnalia Romans celebrated between 17 and 24 of the same month and whose features still seem to re-emerge – at least in part – in today’s Christmas atmosphere.

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St. Nicholas

The pagan feast was marked by one momentary abolition of the rules of morality: slaves were granted freedoms normally punished with death, they could give orders and be served by their masters, a temporary and limited condition of chaos was created, based on the exasperation of practices related to excess. The key to understanding the connection between Saturnalia and Christmas is the symmetrical inversion of the background, as ‹‹like the Saturnalia Romans, medieval Christmas offers two syncretic and opposite characters. It is first of all a reunion and a communion: the distinction between classes and census is temporarily abolished, slaves or servants sit at the lords’ table and they become their servants; all the tables are richly laid out; men and women exchange clothes ››. What therefore in the pagan feast represented a ritual and inversion of roles, seems transformed by Christians into a more side-sharing attitude, of benevolent generosity and altruism towards the weakest (originally slaves and women; today the poor and marginalized).

Another trait in common between our “Christianized” Christmas and the Saturnalia is the importance assumed by the cult use of statuettes and small effigies: simultaneously with Saturnalia i was also celebrated Sigillaria, in which they were dedicated to Saturn gods seals, small images and statuettes sold in annual markets. Once again important protagonists of the party are the children, who were given money ‹‹ so that they could make their purchases on the market: the exchange of gifts between loved ones and the attention dedicated in particular to children (…) are as many points of contact between the Sigillaria and practices associated with Christmas in later culture>>. The is immediate recall among the market of Sigillaria and today’s Christmas markets, of which Bettini above all remembers San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, whose shops ‹‹ with their wonderful offer of shepherds and other statuettes seem to find an unexpected precedent in ancient Rome>>.

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Saturn with a scythe, Capitoline Museums, Rome

So nowadays i Saturnalia they partially revive in the feasts of Christmas and Carnival (the latter also linked to the rite of carrus navalis of Isis), but in medieval times also on an occasion widespread in ecclesiastical circles, although it was not officially “canonical” for the Church: on 6 December:

‹‹ seminarians used to elect a bishop among them (episcopellus) and his chaplains who would have been protagonists at the feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28th of a parody ceremony, L’episcopus puerorum or innocentium (bishop of children and innocents) that took place in church. The beardless episcopel wore vestments and climbed into the chair held the choir and imparted the blessing as an authentic bishop. Clerics and priests were unleashed in a carnival carousel of jokes and parodies during the divine service which they assisted in masquerade clothes. They entered the choir dancing and singing obscene songs (…) And after mass they ran, jumped and danced in church. >>

It is evident on this feast, celebrated by the seminarians, the persistence of those paroxysmal and excessive elements inherent in the Saturnalia Romans, as well as the link between the rex Saturnaliorum (the king of the Saturnalia – personification of the god himself – who was allowed to engage in anomalous and aggressive activities, outside of any social rule: rape, theft, murder) and theepiscopellus, linked more explicitly to the protection of children, the innocent, and it is significant that the same day of the election of the bishopric – December 6 – is also the day of St. Nicholas: ‹‹ the coincidences in the calendar are never random, as are not the symbols of which the plot of the days>>.

Over time there has probably been a reduction in the more properly terrorist and irrational traits of the party, thanks to the action of the Church who managed to ‹‹ expunge these excesses from the Christmas holidays in a long struggle that ended only in the fifteenth century ››, even if already in Roman times the classical authors tend to pass on in a more moderate and sweetened way the features of the Saturnalia. This mitigation process could have led to transformations that are still evident today: primarily Saturn with his role as devourer of his offspring and god of social disorder has become the benevolent Santa Claus, “patron” of children and whose giving of gifts represents the positive means of a contractual and regulatory dialectic between adults and children, therefore a guarantor of social order (note that in the iconography both are depicted with the appearance of an old man with a thick beard).

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On the other hand, the more sinister aspects of Saturn / Kronos could have flowed into the figures of Santa’s double negatives, such as the Alsatian Hans Trapp, devourer of children; the Frenchman Père Fouetteard, according to tradition to be identified in the innkeeper / butcher who would have torn the children to pieces then resurrected from San Nicola, of which he would have become a dark collaborator armed with a whip; the German Belsnickel, also equipped with a whip with which he would punish bad children; or still i Krampus of Austria and north-eastern Italy. That they are double dark Santa Claus is evident from the way they are represented, or with features similar to those of the king dressed in scarlet: old men with long and thick beards, bags on their shoulders, even the whip, used by Santa Claus to guide his reindeer and instead transformed into these figures in a punishment tool for children. The difference between Santa Claus and his negative counterparts is the cruelty with which they stain themselves or have stained themselves against the little ones (note that in the stories relating to some of these figures once again ‹‹ the dead are the children ›› ): this difference is reflected in some iconographic divergences, as Santa’s double negatives have a scruffy appearance and patched clothes, in short, a more malignant form that expresses their negative value.

Another evident change between the pagan festival in honor of Saturn and our Christmas is the phenomenon whereby the reversal of roles in Saturnalia and the most violent customs of this festival have turned into a more serene and controlled atmosphere of (apparent and ostentatious) benevolence and love for the “other”: ‹‹ let’s not be surprised therefore to see foreigners, slaves and children as main beneficiaries of the party ››. But if it is true that Christian Christmas is the feast of sharing and love for “others”, it is also true that the feast of “others” is the feast of the dead, ‹‹ because the fact of being other is the first close image we can make of death ››:

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‹‹ Who can embody the dead in a society of living, if not all those who, for one reason or another, are only partially incorporated into the group, therefore participate in that otherness which is the hallmark of the supreme dualism, that between the dead and the living? >>

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Lévi-Strauss remembers how especially in the Scandinavian world, the Christmas dinner banquet was seen as a meal offered to the deceased, ‹‹ in which the guests play the role of the dead, like children that of the angels and, in turn, the angels that of the dead ››. The French anthropologist still writes:

‹‹ Western culture has clearly distinguished life from death, delivering it to nothing, or representing it as a junction towards other regions, over the centuries variously prefigured in its location and destiny. But in ancient societies the souls of the dead were not in a space without dimensions, in a timeless time, as we are inclined to think today; but in a kind of exchange gift who needed the world to continue to exist as his image reflected in a mirror. In the event that this necessary relationship had suffered a break, the balance thus broken between the world of the living and the world of the dead would have transformed the souls of the dead into destructive demons.>>

In this perspective, children become the connecting link and the fulcrum of the dialectic of mediation between living and dead, ‹‹ by healing the interrupted balance between death and life by re-proposing the contract between living and dead››: it is no coincidence that ritual death was foreseen in many rites of transition from childhood to adulthood, in which children had to die as such and be reborn in their new status.

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Following the Lévistraussian method of comparison with other non-European cultures, one could underline how the excess inherent in Saturnalia and the link between life and death flow into the voodoo deity of Baron Samedi, god psychopomp, known for its debauchery so as to always be represented with glasses of rum and cigars. He repeats the role of mediator between the world of the living and that of the dead, helping communication between them and it is interesting that Samedi means in French ‹‹Saturday››, exactly like Saturday in English from Saturn.

In the period between Halloween and Christmas Lévi-Strauss finally recognizes the progress of autumn, from its beginning to the solstice, which marks the liberation of light and life, which is accompanied, therefore, on a ritual level, by a dialectical movement whose main stages are: the return of the dead, their threatening and persecuting conduct, the determination of a modus vivendi with the living consisting of an exchange of services and gifts, finally the triumph of life when, at Christmas, the dead laden with gifts leave the living to leave them alone until the following autumn>>.

Returning to the case where his reflection begins, Lévi-Strauss notes ironically that the holocaust of the “simulacrum” of Santa Claus, which occurred due to the desire of the clergy of Dijon to destroy – metaphorically and not – a symbol considered detached from the Christian tradition, did nothing but bring an ancient pagan rite back to life, since the king of the Saturnalia ‹‹ after impersonating the king Saturn and having, for a month, allowed every excess, was solemnly sacrificed on the altar of God››.

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Yule’s goat and the Holly King

This type of ritual appears connected to the archetype of the sacrificial practices of the sovereigns: the royal and sacred figures are closely linked to ritual death ceremonies, operated in order to celebrate their rebirth and consecrate their perennial youth; think of the ritual death of Rex Nemorensis, the king-priest of Diana at Lake Nemi, or Baron Samedi, the resurrection of Loa as well as the “ferryman” god of the dead and on the other hand the same month of December was intended as a period of passage and renewal, ‹‹ when the sun passes through an apparent death to be reborn “new” ››. Another sovereign subjected to ritual death is Odin, who according to Scandinavian mythology would have hanged himself for nine days (enough to be remembered as “Lord of the hanged”), paying with the initiatory death the price necessary to obtain knowledge of the runes (symbol of the magical art, of which Odin, was master) and thus reborn to a new status, or that of king-magician: among other things, there is a suspected analogy between the Scandinavian god and Santa Claus, given the strong iconographic similarity.

Just following this initiatory logic, Santa Claus, also a king (dressed in purple), would have met a ritual death, hanged at the gate of the Dijon cathedral and his symbolic rebirth is represented by the “resurrection” at the place de la Liberation: in this way ‹‹ the Dijon clergy has done nothing but return to its entirety, after an eclipse of a few millennia, a ritual figure, thus taking charge, under the pretext of destroying it, of proving its perenniality››.

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